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Rejecting dead, white authors: Universities push progressivism with reading programs, says study

A new study from the National Association of Scholars reveals that universities have harnessed freshman reading programs as a tool to advance social justice and progressive race, class and gender-based narratives.

The “Beach Books” study examined some 350 freshman reading assignments at various top colleges across the country to determine that campus leaders prefer to assign books that bemoan racism and white privilege in the United States rather than introduce students to great works of the past.

“Hundreds of American colleges and universities assign a summer reading to entering freshmen— usually one book, which the students are asked to read outside their courses. For many students, this is the only book they will read in common with their classmates,” the report notes.

But most colleges ignore some of the most celebrated authors and thinkers of the past, such as William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, John Stuart Mill and other notables. They seem to prefer “mediocre nonfiction” that does nothing to foster “the pro-civic habit of literary reading,” the report states.

MORE: U. Penn students remove Shakespeare portrait, replace it with black lesbian feminist poet

The study found that 75 percent of the reading assignments from the 2016-17 school year were published between 2010 and today, only 3.7 percent were published before 1990, and only 1.7 percent were published before 1900.

“The themes register most strongly the common reading genre’s continuing obsession with race, as well as its infantilization of its students, its middlebrow taste, and its progressive politics,” the report states. In 2016-17, the most popular themes were African American, Latin American, protagonist under 18, African, and the Islamic World, it notes.

The top five most assigned readings are: “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stephenson, which examines poor African-Americans and the criminal justice system (24 assignments); “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which discusses white American racism and African-Americans (19 assignments); “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” by Wes Moore, about an African-American man who was able to escape his situation of poverty (10 assignments). These top three alone, making up 53 assignments, comprised 15 percent of the total reading assignments.

Other noteworthy selections include Janet Mock’s transgender memoir “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” assigned at SUNY Oneonta. Another is Joshua Davis’ “Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream,” assigned at several universities. At Salem State University, students read “How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America.”

MORE: Teacher won’t teach Shakespeare, says nonwhite students can’t relate

It is not merely the assigned readings which are progressive, but the discussion guides and recommended activities that often go along with the readings. David Randall, a spokesman for the association, called this commitment to engaging students in activism “free labor” for progressive causes.

For example, San Jose State University’s assignment, “The True American,” was coupled with a lecture by Morehshin Allahyari, “a new media artist, activist, educator, and occasional curator [who spoke on] the intersections of art, activism, jihad, and technocapitalism,” the report noted.

Meanwhile, Knox College used their assignments to ask students what dominant groups they were part of and what subordinate groups they were part of, and Webster University used them to engage in a beads of privilege exercise, according to Randall.

The trends found in the recent report are nothing new, he added.

“It’s been like this for at least the last decade,” he told The Fix. “They’re getting even more homogenous–greater concentration on individual titles, greater concentration in subject matter–but the progressivism is much the same.”

The association states in its report that the best selections for incoming freshmen are older fiction works with literary quality.

Read the report here.

MORE: Colleges are assigning faddish summer books that don’t challenge students’ views, report says

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About the Author
Rebecca Downs -- Regent University's Robertson School of Government